Syrian jihadis hail Taliban ‘conquest’ regardless of their very own effort to rebrand

IDLIB, Syria — Islamists of varied shades have hailed the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan as a serious victory for world jihad. Leaders of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the highly effective extremist Sunni group that rules over broad swathes of the northwestern province of Idlib and used to pay fealty to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS), are not any exception, airing hope {that a} comparable situation will unfold in Syria with the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad and his “criminal regime.”

“With utmost joy and delight, we received the news of the conquest of our people in Afghanistan and their land’s [liberation] from the occupation and its agents at the hands of the Taliban,” HTS stated in an Aug. 18 assertion.

“Perhaps in this victory witnessed today is a lesson and opportunity for the international community and other sides silent about the crimes of Bashar and his aides, as it should encourage them to support the will of the peoples and repeat their demands and not stand alongside the flayer in confronting the free peoples,” the assertion added.

Iraqi HTS chief Abu Maria al-Qahtani was much more bullish. “At a time when the massacres committed by the military against those who raised peaceful slogans among Muslims were being commemorated, good news started flowing from Afghanistan. Victory does not come through concessions or euphemisms. Victory come through sincerity, in the roar of canons and the staccato of bullets,” he tweeted. Others composed poems to convey their pleasure.

Taqi al-Din Omar, the Idlib-based head of the group’s media workplace, instructed Al-Monitor, “The developments in Afghanistan are similar to those in Syria. The Syrians are calling for freedom from the oppression of the criminal regime and its allies, Russia and Iran. Any liberation movement in the world gives us hope that there are still free people out there who to intend to live in freedom of dignity.” Omar added, “This position does not apply to HTS alone but to all of the Syrian people.”

The jubilation displayed by HTS has raised eyebrows at a time when its chief, Abu Muhammad al-Jolani, has been determinedly in search of to refashion himself as a statesman-like determine, a reasonable harboring no unwell emotions towards the West. The makeover is meant to steer the United States and the United Nations, amongst others, to take HTS off their respective lists of terrorist organizations. In 2018, the group’s principal enabler, Turkey, categorized it as reminiscent of nicely.

The celebratory temper was felt in mosques and different spiritual establishments in Idlib. Local preachers seized the second to recount the historical past of the Taliban and to laud its success. The HTS organized marches to mark the event and supplied sweets within the streets of Idlib.

Yet the effusion is neither as shocking nor as contradictory because it appears. “There’s a pretty solid consensus among Islamist movements in the Middle East that the Taliban have waged a legitimate struggle against a foreign occupation. That sympathy actually extends far beyond the Islamist sphere. For HTS members not to be overjoyed by the Taliban victory, well that would have been surprising,” stated Aron Lund, a Middle East researcher on the Swedish Defense Research Agency. It typically goes unnoticed in Western debate “that the Taliban are not seen as an especially extreme group within the jihadi-inspired Islamist milieu that HTS belongs to. To the contrary, they are seen as a locally rooted, authentic group HTS aspires to be, leading a locally rooted, big-tent Islamist movement that can be politically flexible but remains unrelenting in its pursuit of religious rule,” Lund instructed Al-Monitor. “It’s an example of how you play the long game, how strategic patience pays off,” Lund added.

“They see themselves as representing something like the Taliban in Syria. That they are a local force that has Islamic flavor. That they are trying to create a more just and religious society locally and that hopefully one day from their perspective, they’ll be able to not only take over Damascus but the entire country of Syria,” concurred Aaron Zelin, a fellow on the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and founding father of jihadology.internet. “And like the Taliban, they too now are focused on the local fight and have no interest in doing external operations,” Zelin instructed Al-Monitor.

But the similarities go solely to date. To be certain, HTS is, alongside the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), essentially the most influential and cohesive armed opposition group within the nation. Both have been in search of to various levels to shed their extra radical roots. The SDF has thinned out some senior figures, notably Kurds from Turkey, from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), who helped the US-led coalition defeat IS and construct the Syrian Kurds’ autonomous administration however are designated as terrorists by the United States. Washington was in search of to humor NATO ally Turkey, which has been unsuccessfully in search of to stamp out the PKK’s armed insurgency since 1984.

HTS has gone to additional extremes, declaring struggle on and subduing the remaining al-Qaeda offshoots in its territory. However, Washington stays unswayed. A senior administration official talking on background to Al-Monitor confirmed that the United States was “not open to normalizing or engaging or changing our posture toward that group.”

Besides, HTS has not been in motion so long as the Taliban. Geographically and politically, it’s much more constrained. “HTS is only able to maintain a territorial entity owing to Turkish protection of Idlib, while the Taliban are in control of an entire country,” noticed Elizabeth Tsurkov, a researcher who has written extensively on armed opposition teams in Syria. “The Taliban’s ability to withstand 20 years of a US military campaign is what led the US to eventually negotiate with them directly to enable a US withdrawal,” Tsurkov instructed Al-Monitor. Moreover, the Taliban was by no means formally designated as a terrorist group. And its ties to Turkish intelligence are nowhere as deep and much reaching as these between Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence and the Taliban.

Mohammed Sarmini, director of the Jusoor Center for Studies and Development, an Istanbul-based assume tank centered on Syrian affairs, stated, “The Taliban is deeply rooted in the Afghan fabric through religious and national tools. HTS’ presence in Syria, however, is confined to a narrow group and a small geographic spot.”

“The only possible effect of what happened in Afghanistan in Syria is Iran’s possible regression to focus on securing its borders in the event there is a Western tendency to exploit the Taliban’s expansion against Iranian influence,” Sarmini instructed Al-Monitor.

What each teams do share is the West’s deep skepticism of them. The Taliban’s pledges to permit girls to maintain working and for ladies to go to highschool are being greeted with bitter laughter. Similarly, the suit-wearing Jolani’s dovish overtures fly within the face of his iron grip over Idlib.

“While HTS’ periodic crackdowns on al-Qaeda and [IS] in Idlib could be perceived as signs of goodwill to the international community, these actions largely serve to consolidate its rule by eliminating its sworn enemies and quashing local dissident voices, making it no different from other authoritarian regimes in that regard,” wrote Orwa Ajjoub, a researcher at Sweden’s Lund University in a coverage temporary for the Middle East Institute.

“The group’s repressive and exclusionary approach in Idlib is likely to exacerbate radicalization as it marginalizes, excludes, and represses many who are not necessarily convinced by the ideology of [IS] and al-Qaeda, but are pushed by their grievances and shared enmity of Jolani to join such groups,” Ajjoub added.

“I don’t believe they have become more moderate. Nobody buys these attempts, me included,” stated Karam Shaar, a non-resident Syrian scholar on the Middle East Institute. “However, we do know that Jolani has proven time and again to be an extremely pragmatic person. The reason he is still in business is that Turkey is supporting him,” Shaar instructed Al-Monitor. That stated, “If you look at the human rights abuses in other parts of northwest Syria, you can see that HTS has not been quite that bad,” Shaar added. He was alluding to the gross violations dedicated by quite a few Turkish-backed Sunni insurgent factions, which the UN has labeled as struggle crimes.

Back in Idlib, which is home to over 1.7 million internally displaced individuals and the place greater than 90% of individuals reside beneath the poverty line, in accordance with the UN, residents have extra quick worries. “We do not care who controls Afghanistan, be it the Taliban or any other party,” stated Mohamed Jaber, a refugee from Saraqib who ekes out a living working in a neighborhood restaurant. “What concerns us is the high cost of living in Idlib and the regime’s bombing. What will the Taliban offer us? Will they take us back to our cities and villages? Will they provide us with support to defeat the regime’s forces?” he requested.

Sarah Khaled, one other inner refugee, instructed Al-Monitor, “I have heard about the Taliban from people’s conversations, but I don’t know anything about them. What I care about is waking up and baking in the morning so I can feed my children. What interests us is the monthly aid we receive to secure our needs.”

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